In order to learn how to analyze a poem, you have to understand what poetry is. Poetry is a literary form used to express feelings and ideas. Poetry analysis involves examining the independent elements of a poem to understand those feelings and ideas.
There is no one right way to analyze a poem. However, some of the possible ways will be explored in this article.
We’ll break down the main aspects of poetry analysis and poetic elements to help you form and focus your own analyses. This guide can also serve as a poetry analysis worksheet as there are questions to guide you.
Below are the poetic elements, tips, and examples you need to guide you in your quest to analyze any poem.
Understand and Dissect The Theme of The Poem
The theme of a poem is its central topic, subject, or message. Examining the theme of a poem is a great method of analysis; the easiest way to break anything down is by understanding what it’s about.
To understand how to analyze that poem, start by studying the poem for its main idea. It could be about love, loss, patriotism, nature, etc.
As an example, let’s look at “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Learn To Find The Theme Of The Poem
To find the theme of the poem, we have to break it down to find what it is about. Let’s break down Frost’s poem to find the theme.
Frost begins this poem by talking about nature and flowers, and how they don’t last very long. He says the same about dawn; at first, the sky is golden but then it rapidly fades as the sun rises higher. This loss is compared to the fall from Eden, and then Frost concludes with “Nothing gold can stay.”
The recurring message here is that nothing golden and beautiful lasts. We can then develop this idea into the main theme of the poem, which is transience; the most beautiful things tend to have the shortest longevity. After finding the theme, an analysis can be made about how Frost delivers the theme.
You can also explore the literary devices he uses in order to do so, who the intended audience is, etc.
Poems can also have multiple themes. And a poetry analysis can be built on their relationship with one another. Moreover, some poems are written to deliver a message or moral which can also be a point of examination.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about the theme:
- What is the theme of the poem?
- Are there multiple themes? How do they relate to each other?
- Is the poem trying to deliver a message or moral?
- What audience is the message for?
- What techniques does the poet use to deliver the themes in the most effective way possible?
Pay Attention To The Context Of The Poem
The context of a poem forms the foundation of its comprehension. A poet’s background can be crucial to your ability to understand their poetry. A poet’s life and experiences can affect the interpretation or provide extra information. Examining such context is another solid method of poetry analysis.
Details about a poet’s life can suggest a specific point of view. For example, some of Grace Nichols poetry, such as “Island Man,” is more meaningful if the reader knows that Nichols is a Guyanese poet who moved to London when she was 27. And a lot of Nichols’s poetry is inspired by her homesickness.
The culture of the place and time a poem was written in also has an effect on the interpretation. For instance, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel L. Coleridge has strong themes of nature and religion. The reason for this is because it was written during the Industrial Revolution when people were entranced by science and technology. Coleridge wanted to draw their attention back to what they were overlooking.
The effect of the culture of place is observable in Dareen Tatour’s poem “قوم يا شاب قومهم” (“Resist, My People, Resist Them”) which she wrote as a Palestenian in protest against the Israeli government. Her poem made a defiant statement, and she was arrested for it.
In some cases, poetry is influenced by the era or movement it was written in, like how Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was written during the Beat Generation movement.
Researching About The Poet Can Help You To Analyze A Poem
A little extra research about a poet and their life can go a long way in improving your understanding of their poetry. Take some time to read up on the context. You’ll be better equipped to write a thorough analysis of the poem.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about context:
- Do details about the poet’s life suggest a specific point of view?
- Does the culture of that era (I,e. time, and/or place) have any effect on the interpretation of the poem?
- Does the poem belong to a movement? How might this affect its interpretation?
Focusing On Mood and Tone Is A Solid Way To Analyze A Poem
Mood and tone are similar, but the distinction between the two is important. Mood refers to the feeling the audience gets from the writing.
For instance, a mood shift can be observed in Billy Collin’s poem “Introduction to Poetry.”
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
In the first four stanzas, the mood of this poem is of wonder and exploration. It’s light and invokes the marvel of learning new things.
However, in the later stanzas, the mood becomes darker and sinister. The mood shift and how and why Collins creates it is a strong point of analysis.
Remember, Tone Differs From Mood
Tone, as mentioned earlier, is a little different than mood. Tone refers to the attitude the writer has towards the subject they are writing about.
For example, the tone of a poem could be satirical, serious, humorous, critical, or appreciative. The tone in “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” by Hugh MacDiarmid is quite easy to detect.
It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.
As previously mentioned, the tone is how the writer feels about the subject of their poem. The subject here is mercenary soldiers. It’s pretty clear that MacDiarmid doesn’t care very much for them.
The tone of the poem is undeniably contemptuous and angry. Taking note of this tone creates an opportunity for analysis on how MacDiarmid conveys the tone and why he feels so strongly about mercenary soldiers.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about mood and tone:
- What is the mood of the poem?
- Does the mood change over the course of the poem? Why did the poet create said change?
- What strategies does the poet use to convey the mood?
- What is the tone of the poem? Does the poet agree, disagree, admire, ridicule, or condemn the subject of the poem? What is the reason?
- How does word choice affect the tone of the poem?
- What strategies does the poet use to convey the tone?
Explore The Literary Devices Used In The Poem
Literary devices are techniques writers use to produce special effects in their writing. It is especially helpful when you’re still grappling with learning ways to analyze a poem.
As can be sensed from the definition, it’s a pretty broad category. As such, an analysis of a poem based on literary devices can go in many directions. A few of them have been highlighted below.
Repetition is a literary device frequently found in poetry, as can be demonstrated by Merrill Glass’s “But You Didn’t.”
Remember the time you lent me your car and I dented it?
I thought you’d kill me…
But you didn’t.
Remember the time I forgot to tell you the dance was
formal, and you came in jeans?
I thought you’d hate me…
But you didn’t.
Remember the times I’d flirt with
other boys just to make you jealous, and
I thought you’d drop me…
But you didn’t.
There were plenty of things you did to put up with me,
to keep me happy, to love me, and there are
so many things I wanted to tell
you when you returned from
But you didn’t.
To learn how to analyze repetition in a poem, first, find the repeating phrases. Secondly, assess their function and contribution to the poem.
The repeating phrases in this poem are “Remember the time” and “But you didn’t.” Their functions are reinforcing the mood of the poem and the building structure.
The repetition of “Remember the time” produces a nostalgic mood. The repetition of both phrases creates a framework for the poem.
Therefore, when the mood drastically changes in the last stanza, the continued repetition of “But you didn’t” still keeps the poem within its structure; it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere. It is important to consider this when figuring out how to analyze a poem.
Next in literary devices, let’s discuss the imagery and sensory language. Imagery is an author’s use of descriptive language to build visuals. Meanwhile, sensory language is words and phrases that create vividity in writing. This vividness is created by appealing to the senses.
Both are employed by writers to add depth to their work. The use and effect of these two devices can be observed in this excerpt from “The Young Sun’s Greeting” by Léopold Sédar Senghor.
The young sun’s greeting
On my bed, your letter’s glow
All the sounds that burst from morning
Blackbirds’ brassy calls, jingle of gonoleks
Your smile on the grass, on the radiant dew.
This stanza is rich with sensory language. The description of sunlight on the bed, the sounds of birds in the morning and dew on the grass creates a strong image of a serene morning.
The resulting effect is a vivid and entrancing poem. This effect can be analyzed in terms of how it’s achieved, the impact it creates, and how it supports the theme of the poem.
There are many other literary devices that are frequently found in poetry including metaphors, personification, flashbacks, symbolism, diction, and more. These can all be analyzed in a similar manner as highlighted above.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about literary devices:
- What are the most prominent literary devices used in the poem? How can it help you to analyze the poem?
- What function do the devices have in the poem? Do they build the structure?
- Do literary devices contribute to the mood? Do they support the theme?
- How does the poet’s use of literary devices make for a better and more meaningful poem?
Analyze The Language and Structure
Poetry allows for eccentric language and structure use in a way that no other literary form does. This makes for engaging reads and great points of analysis.
As an example, here is an excerpt of “Half-caste” by John Agard
Wha u mean
When yu say half-caste
Yu mean when light an shadow
Mix in de sky
Is a half-caste weather??
Well in dat case
Nearly always half-caste
In fact some o dem cloud
Half-caste till dem overcast
So spiteful dem dont want de sun pass
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste?
Yu mean tchaikovsky
Sit down at dah piano
An mix a black key
Wid a white key
Is a half-caste symphony?
This is a great piece about the absurdity of racism, but let’s focus on the language. Agard writes in his Caribbean dialect. By doing so, he is legitimizing his way of speech and asserting himself and his mixed race identity. It’s a strong statement and connects well with the message of the poem.
Pay Attention To Creative Use Of Grammar
In terms of grammar and punctuation, what better example is there than Emily Dickinson’s poetry? She’s well known for her odd capitalization and punctuation.
Here’s poem #466 “I dwell in Possibility.” In this poem, Dickinson writes about the limitless power of poetry and its superiority over prose.
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Dickinson’s grammar can seem daunting, but it’s just a matter of breaking it down. Beginning with the capitalization, these are all the words (excluding the words at the beginning of each line) that she capitalizes:
Possibility, House, Prose, Windows, Doors, Chambers, Cedars, Roof, Gambrels, Sky, Visitors, Occupation, This, Hands, Paradise
The most recurring image produced by these words is of a house, which is the main metaphor of the poem. Dickinson compares poetry to a fair house that has many windows, an endless roof, and other appealing characteristics.
So, it can already be reasoned that Dickinson’s capitalization is in order to emphasize the main focus of her poetry. This analysis can be furthered by examining the capitalized words that don’t fit in with the rest, such as “Paradise.”
A possible reason that “Paradise” is stressed could be the religious context; Dickinson could’ve been trying to portray just how divine poetry is by giving it a more powerful connotation.
The other notable grammatical element in Dickinson’s poem is the abundance of em dashes. Almost every line ends in an em dash, and several have em dashes in the middle of them.
Dickinson’s use of em dashes in the middle of her lines is usually to highlight words of significance. For instance, “for Doors” is enclosed in em dashes in the first stanza. To find out why, let’s consider the rest of the stanza.
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Dickinson is talking about the superiority of the “Possibility” a.k.a poetry house over the prose house. Poetry has more windows and it has doors.
It’s important to notice that she says “More numerous of Windows,” because this means that the prose house also has windows, poetry just has more. In terms of doors, however, the prose house doesn’t seem to have any. So it’s just a house of windows.
Windows are nice, but you need doors to enter and exit. Therefore, “for Doors” could be stressed because Dickinson wanted to establish that prose isn’t as open as poetry.
Just as important as the use of em dashes,is the absence of them. Dickinson uses so many of her trademark dashes in this poem, so the two places where she doesn’t stand out: “And for an everlasting Roof” and “The spreading wide my narrow Hands.”
Both of these lines describe something that’s expanding: the eternal roof and hands that are reaching out to paradise. Without the usual em-dashes, these lines visibly expand on the page which enhances their meaning.
Poetry often accommodates unusual structure and language that many poets utilize for emphasis, to make a statement or other similar reasons. All these can act as effective focal points of poetry analysis.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about language and structure:
- Does the poet make use of language or grammar in an unconventional manner? What effect does this have on the poem?
- Do the language and diction complement the theme and mood of the poem?
- How is the poem structured? How are the lines and stanzas arranged? Why might the poet have made that decision?
- Do the language and structure correspond with the poem’s form? Why or why not?
Identify and Explore The Poetic Form
Identifying and exploring the poetic form is a great way to analyze a poem.
The poetic form determined by the poem’s rhythm and structure. The easiest way to detect the rhythm and structure of a poem is by listening to it.
Poetry is meant to be heard, so read it aloud or listen to a recording of the poem. This will allow for the detection of patterns in rhythm and rhyme schemes. Use that information to identify the poetic form.
A fourteen-line rhyming poem may be a sonnet. A poem with an AABBA scheme is a limerick. A long narrative poem could be an epic, and a poem that seems to be a tribute may be an ode. Maybe the poem doesn’t seem to follow any form, which would make it free verse.
While it’s not necessary to know the exact poetic form—you don’t have to memorize all the forms and their distinctions—it can be helpful because certain forms have specific associations.
For example, sonnets are usually about love. Limericks tend to be humorous, and epics are often adventurous and historical. An understanding of the form of the poem can then open up opportunities for analyses about whether the poem adheres to or challenges its conventions.
Poetry analysis questions to ask about the form of the poem:
- Is the poem traditional or contemporary?
- Does the poem follow a rhyme scheme or rhythm?
- Does the poem follow a specific structure?
- Can the poem be classified under a certain form?
- Does it adhere to or challenge its respective form’s conventions?
- Does the poem break away from its form or structure at any point? Why might the poet have made the change?
Last Words On How To Analyze A Poem
Analyzing poetry can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply break the poem down to its basic elements. Most of the major poetic elements have been outlined in this guide. Then, choose one or two to examine.
Also, make sure you’re asking the right questions. Create your own analysis worksheet or use the ones in this guide.
The main idea of poetry analysis is to investigate and evaluate the way the poet makes an impression. Find what jumps out and talk about it in your essay, literary magazine, or audio podcast. Good luck!
Have you tried to analyze a poem? What challenges did you face? And how did you overcome these challenges? What poetic elements do you explore the most in your poetry analysis?
Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.
Interested in poetry contests? Check out the The 6th Singapore Poetry Contest 2020/How to Submit ($170)
Collins, Billy. “Introduction to Poetry.” The Apple that Astonished Paris. University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Dickinson, Emily. “I dwell in Possibility.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 1999.
Frost, Robert. “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. Ed. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Glass, Merrill. “But You Didn’t.” Family Friend Poems, www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/but-you-didnt-by-merrill-glass.
Macdiarmid, Hugh. “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.” The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid. Penguin Books, 1985.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. “The Young Sun’s Greeting.” Leopold Sédar Senghor: the Collected Poetry. University Press of Virginia, 1998.